Living Stories: Indigenous Photographers, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I published some musings about recent shows by Indigenous photographers Christian Thompson and Destiny Deacon which led me to think about the use of the genre of the tableau vivant among contemporary artists in the medium. Deacon’s work employs the stage photograph to comment on conditions of contemporary Aboriginal history and social constructions of identity; Thompson plays in particular with the premier contemporary use of the tableau vivant, fashion photography.

Fiona Foley has blended both arenas–social history and fashion–in her photographic works over the years. In the early 1990s she produced a pair of works, Badtjala Woman andNative Blood (both 1994) in which she became the subject of her own camera in a style reminiscent of nineteenth-century artists like J. W. Lindt. The former (see reproductionshere and here) has its roots in anthropological photographs, particularly in one Foley appropriated for an earlier wall installation entitled Giviid Woman and Mrs Fraser (1992) (for a reproduction see Benjamin Genocchio’s monograph Fiona Foley: Solitaire , Piper Press, 2001). in which dilly bags, rat traps, and copies of a historical photograph of a proud looking, bare-breasted woman draped in shell necklaces taken together encapsulated Foley’s vision of the contact history of her native Fraser Island. In the three self-portraits that comprise Badtjala Woman the artists wears the necklaces and dilly bag; the dramatic lighting enhances the psychological messages of both pride and loss that characterize Badtjala history as Foley reconstructs it.

Native Blood (reproduced here) takes these elements out of the realm of anthropology (almost) and into the world of fashion. Foley, wearing the same set of shell and reed necklaces reclines topless in front of a painted backdrop that suggests clouds over a tropical sea. The grass skirt reinforces the sense of the tropical pastorals familiar to National Geographic readers. But the sheer black tights she wears and the platform shoes, which have been highlighted with gold paint introduce a decidedly post-modernist, ironic narrative. Her recumbent pose recalls a mermaid, only here she is part “native” part modern model. There is a seductiveness to the pose that the severe expression on her face contradicts. She is a woman of two worlds, of air and sea, ancient and modern.

Almost a decade later Foley produced a series of photographs entitled Wild Times Call (2002). In these she poses alone or with members of Florida’s Seminole Nation, thrusting the notion of indigeneity to the forefront. Here she rings interesting changes on the concept of the tableau vivant. In each photograph, Foley is costumed in traditional Seminole garb. In the solo shots, the historical and pedagogical comes to the fore, as we see here at the side of a mangrove swamp, beside a dugout canoe, or floating on a placid lake. (The association with mangroves, a common motif in Foley’s work, emphasizes the connections between different indigenous cultures as well.) The sepia cast of the photographs lends them a historical aspect as much as the costume does. 

In the photographs in which she poses with her Seminole counterparts, the pretense of historicism is unmasked, however. One shot shows Foley at the center of a group of six people; while she is bedecked in the traditional costume, there are wearing obviously contemporary, zippered jackets, albeit with designs drawn from a traditional repertoire. In another, the group poses in front of a large black vehicle (an SUV, or a hearse?) which is parked in a dirt yard in front of a thatched longhouse. Behind the traditional building, the cab of a tractor-trailer also locates the scene in the present, emphasizing the themes of continuity and change in indigenous cultures.

Historical fictions and modern fashion photography collide head on in Foley’s recent No Shades of White (2005), which has been on display around the world in recent years. This series had its genesis during a 2004 residency spent in New York City, where Foley became friends with a number of African-American fashion models. With characteristic audacity, Foley decided to stage her own fashion show, designing robes and hoods on the model of the Ku Klux Klan, but executed in contemporary African-American kentecloth fabrics. A mock fashion show of the “Hedonistic Honky Haters” along with a suitable backstory relating to 1960s radicalism was arranged, with Foley and her noticeably taller model friends donning the robes. The exhibition consists of individual “head shots” of each of the models, a group photograph, and the original robes and hoods.

Each of these photographic expeditions examines the contact and conflict between indigenous and colonizing cultures and points to the continuing influence of tradition and history on both sides to the contemporary moment. From the indigenous perspective, these photographs also serve as a means of constructing a visual history for a non-literate culture that has been marginalized by conventional historiography. In oral cultures, memory serves as the repository of history, but memory is always lodged firmly in the living, contemporary moment, and events of the past are thus subject to the transformative power of the present. Foley’s work began with the local (Badtjala, Fraser Island) past and moved outward in space and forward in time to a concern with universal themes of indigeneity. 

Darren Siwes has seemed to follow a reverse trajectory, at least temporally, moving from simple constructions in transparently modern Adelaide locations towards an ever more elaborate staging of faux-historical tableaux that address the roots of British colonialism in Australia. His earliest work dates from 1998 to 2001 and is collectively titledMis/Perceptions (a catalog was published by Adelaide’s Greenaway Gallery in 2001; several of the works can be seen here on pp. 20-23). The locus of these works is Adelaide and surrounds: Rundle Street Mall, Mt Lofty, Woodside Lutheran Church; parks, roadsides, and train stations. 

In one the earliest, I Am Standing Still (1998), Siwes stands motionless in the middle of the Rundle Street Mall at night as the time lapse photography turns pedestrians into ghostly traces crossing the street. Usually though, the effect is reversed, and it is Siwes who appears transparent and yet strangely substantial, alone in an otherwise deserted urban landscape. The human figure in his series of tableaux vivants, he is both there and not there, and ineffable and yet ineradicable Aboriginal presence in the modern city. 

There is an element in these early photographs that once more calls the fashion shoot to mind: Siwes’s choice of wardrobe. In the 1998 photograph, the only one that I have seen in which the photographer in the substantial rather than the ghostly figure, he is clad in a proletarian flannel shirt, jeans, and heavy boots. In his “ghostly” apparitions, he adopts business attire: a white shirt and tie, a business suit, a heavy overcoat. The former may suggest the stockman’s uniform as much as the latter a sartorial mode only very recently adopted by many urban Aborigines. As with Fiona Foley, costume plays a key role in the visual language used to examine history.

In 2002, Siwes was awarded a scholarship which led to an MA in Fine Arts from the Chelsea School of Art in London, and to a series of photographs (collectively titled Just is) that placed the artist, at first alone and later with his (non-Indigenous) wife in a variety of classically English settings including Leicester Castle and Cambridge University. Upon his return to Australia, more photographs, shot in the bush country around Adelaide, were added to the series. In most of these photographs, Siwes and his wife wear masquerade masks; in some of the English series they are unmasked but clad in period costumes, he in a top hat, she in an elegant black gown. In all the English photographs she appears in the foreground, he in the background; this pattern in reversed in the Australian scenes.

Just is juxtaposes the colonizing nation and the colony and hints at an irony of modern times: that England has now in turn been colonized by citizens of the nations it once called its Empire. Like Burnum Burnum planting the Aboriginal flag on British soil in 1988, Siwes subtly inserts himself in edifices that represent English history, an imperial immigrant claiming his place in that history.

In his latest series, Mum, I Want to be Brown (2006), Siwes abandons the ghostly double-exposure technique for the first time and removes himself from the camera’s gaze as well. He substitutes instead the imagination and play-acting of childhood in the most elaborate sequence of historical tableaux vivants to date. This world is still a shadowy country in which the action takes place at night amidst props that carry the aura of dream-objects. Beds and tables removed to the grounds of churches and hospitals appear out of place and all the more fraught with symbolism for that displacement. Children in “brownface” confront the unexplained mysteries of race that surround them yet remain beyond their comprehension.

The emphasis on place that dominated Siwes’s early photographs in Adelaide has now given way to a phantasmagoria. The scene has shifted to the bush, and the tenuousness of the British attempt to colonize an alien land is foregrounded by the childish theatricals that now dominate the scene. The elaborately carved nineteenth century chairs and plush divans, the Victrola with its trumpet speaker, and the intricately patterns rugs set out amidst fallen leaves and untended grass, so obviously out of place, epitomize the colonial unease in the bush. In this they contrast sharply with the implacable stillness of Siwes’s self-portraits in the earlier work where his presence, if ghostly, remains rooted in the urban landscape.

Race and identity, and indeed the history of race as identity, play out as key themes in the work of both Fiona Foley and Darren Siwes. Their photographs reconstitute history; they give form to stories that have been unvoiced or spoken of only in whispers. Still other Indigenous photographers use this constructive strategy of the tableau vivant to create new worlds where the real meets the surreal, a theme I will take up in my next installment in this series.

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2 Responses to Living Stories: Indigenous Photographers, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Games in the Hood: Indigenous Photographers, Part 1 | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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